Kneeling in the faded grass, about thirty men and women scrutinize the ground, centimeter by centimeter. The aim of this ant work is to detect mines whose war zone in eastern Ukraine has been riddled with for several years.
The team of deminers is working on a hill of 74,000 m2 where “direct signs” of anti-tank mines have been detected.
This ancient, curly, “Danger mines” pasturage is located in Tchouguinka, a picturesque village surrounded by pine woods in the Lugansk region, 25 kilometers west of the front line.
“The whole village used it, for them we take care of the demining, so that we can tell them one day: here everything is cleaned up,” says Anatoly Radchenko, former entrepreneur who became chief of deminers , equipped like his colleagues with a blue bulletproof vest and a protective mask.
Composed of Ukrainians, the team was formed by the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD), a Geneva-based organization that finances it. Armed with hand-held probes and metal detectors, its members are tasked with locating mines, marking them with flags, and alerting the state’s first-aid services in charge of defusing them.
Dangerous and very slow work: in six weeks, the team examined less than 5% of the field.
– “Work in spite of everything” –
Part of the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Lugansk have been controlled since 2014 by pro-Russian separatists, whose war with Kiev forces has claimed more than 10,000 lives.
According to Kiev and the West, Russia militarily supports the separatists, which Moscow denies despite numerous testimonies collected by the media.
The Minsk peace agreements reached in February 2015 have significantly reduced the fighting, but regular outbreaks of violence and mine explosions planted by the warring parties continue to weigh down the death toll.
“About 7000 km2 are contaminated by mines (…) in eastern Ukraine, which makes it one of the most mined regions in the world”, worried in December in a statement the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
According to the UN, more than 1,600 civilians have been killed or wounded by such weapons since the beginning of the conflict, while more than two million Ukrainians, including 220,000 children, continue to be at risk.
Andri, a 32-year-old farmer who lives in Tchouguinka with his family and earns his livelihood by growing wheat, must now take this risk into account. One of his colleagues from a nearby village was injured by a mine during the harvest.
“For a tractor driver, there is always a risk here to jump on a mine,” sighs the man with the large frame. “But you have to work in spite of everything.”
– Decades to clean –
In addition to the FSD, two other humanitarian organizations, The HALO Trust and Danish Demining Group (DDG) are involved in mine clearance in Ukraine but only in areas controlled by Kiev.
On the other side of the front line, the separatist authorities, who carry out the demining themselves, do not reveal the surface of the contaminated territories, but, like those of Kiev, admit that this process will take years, even decades.
“We will suffer for a very long time,” said the separatist mayor of the town of Gorlivka Ivan Prykhodko.
Especially since despite official truces, both sides continue to undermine new areas without marking them, according to the OSCE.
And demining is only advancing by a trickle: since 2014, the Ukrainian military specialists, who carry out the major part of mine clearance, have been able to control only 42 km2 of the contaminated territories, or 0.6% of the total, according to official figures published in December.
The mines continue to kill. In late September, three teenagers died after jumping on a hidden mine in a wood near Gorlivka. Only a ten-year-old boy, injured, survived.
“Some people think that the parents are guilty of letting the boys roam alone, others that the children are because they did not notice the” Mines “sign,” told AFP Vladimir Touloup, whose Dima’s grandson survived. “But it’s not them, it’s this cursed war that’s guilty.”